Werewolves’ weakness and hatred towards silver is one of their most well-known features, along with their fearsome appearance and capacity to shape-shift during the night.
However, their vulnerability to silver weapons, such as bullets, arrows, or stakes, is actually a modern invention that can be traced to a single source: the 1941 film Wolf Man.
This particular film firmly established the most popular tropes about werewolves:
- Werewolves can only be killed with silver weapons or bullets.
- Transformation only takes place on nights with a full moon.
- A person bitten by a werewolf is doomed to become a werewolf himself.
- When transformed, a werewolf looks like a humanoid wolf. Up until this movie, transformed werewolves were thought to look like simple wolves.
Thus, it was Hollywood that made the werewolves vulnerable to silver items.
The idea of a werewolf as a myth has been around in Europe and the West for thousands of years, all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
However, up until this film, their vulnerability to silver either didn’t exist or was at best an indirect weakness.
Still, the choice to make silver a weakness for werewolves wasn’t made at random. Instead, it was well thought out and researched, at least from a mythological point of view.
There are 4 main mythological reasons why silver is a potent weapon against werewolves:
- Silver has real chemical properties that are anti-microbial.
- Silver is a divine material with protective powers.
- Silver is a magical element that can destroy magic.
- Silver was a convenient, but relatively accurate, plot device.
Silver’s has antibacterial properties
Silver has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that have been known for thousands of years (although not always understood).
Because of this reason, ancient Greek sailors would throw a silver coin or two in barrels of drinking water to prevent it from spoiling during long voyages. Early American settlers also did this as they trekked westward and settled new lands.
It is for this reason that silver cutlery was so highly prized. The nobility and especially royalty preferred silver cutlery since they hoped it would counteract any poison in their food (it didn’t).
Before the invention of modern medicine, the superstitious population of Europe believed some of the people who were werewolves were victims of a disease called “lycanthropy” (from the Greek words for “wolf” and “man”).
Since pre-modern cultures frequently used silver as a medicine, it becomes easy to understand why silver could be used to treat a person with lycanthropy, preventing them from becoming a werewolf again.
Silver was a divine material
Silver’s anti-microbial properties made it a medicine; its ability to resist rust turned it into a coin, but its color made it divine.
Many European cultures before Christianity gave the moon a lot of religious importance. The moon was personified by gods like Artemis, Diana, Selene, Luna, Hekate, and Mani.
Because silver had many useful properties and shared a similar color with the moon, it became symbolically linked with the moon, regardless of whether a deity was used to represent it.
This combination of practical and divine properties made silver a very popular material to create magical, protective amulets and jewelry. This includes necklaces, rings, arm bands, etc.
Silver is infused with magical properties
Furthermore, out of all celestial objects, the Moon is the one most closely linked to magic, the occult, and witchcraft.
As the brightest object in the dark night sky, the Moon seems to be a door into the unknown and mysterious.
It is a connection point between the physical world we inhabit and the realm of spirits and magic that we cannot access until death.
The moon’s cycle, in which it changes from a crescent to a disc and back to a crescent, adds to the idea that it looks like a door that opens and closes.
This is the main reason why werewolves transform during a full moon, because that’s when the border between the spiritual and physical realms is weakest and magic can seep into the world.
Just like in past religious cults, communities that practice magic or pagan rituals (such as Wicca) have retained silver’s connection to the moon and even consider silver to be a lunar fragment, at least on a symbolic, magical level.
This means that if the moon has the magical power to create a werewolf, it also possesses the power to destroy one.
In the context of werewolves, a silver bullet or sword that pierces a werewolf acts like a magical key that unlocks or destroys the werewolf spell.
Silver is a simple, easy to understand weapon against werewolves
As mentioned in the beginning, werewolves’ weakness to silver is mostly a Hollywood innovation to the werewolf myth.
However, even if it is a Hollywood invention, this decision is relatively well grounded in the overall rules of most religions, pagan cults, or magical mythology.
This brings us to a question: how were werewolves dealt with in traditional folkloric beliefs?
The werewolf myth is thousands of years old and has spanned multiple cultures and religions. Because of this, mythological sources indicate various solutions for werewolves:
1) Cut the magical connection. In medieval Europe, during the height of the witch hunt craze, it was believed a person could transform into a werewolf by wearing a magical girdle, belt, or coat made from wolf skin.
Finding and destroying the magical clothing would destroy the curse, and prevent the person from transforming into a werewolf again.
Coincidentally, in some cases, it was thought the only way to destroy these magical items was by using a silver instrument.
2) Wait for the curse to lift. Cases in which a person becomes a werewolf following a curse from a god or demon usually have an “expiration timer”.
In Armenian folklore, a sinful woman was said to remain a werewolf for 7 years. In Greek mythology, a person sacrificed to the yearly Mount Lykaion ritual would be transformed into a werewolf for 9 years.
3) Hurt the werewolf when in wolf shape, then track the human. In later versions of the myth, it was believed that hurting a werewolf while in wolf form would carry over when the person became human again.
Because of this superstitious belief, medieval inquisitors frequently accused innocent people of being werewolves simply because they had a wound that resembled one that local hunters had inflicted on a wolf.
4) Do nothing. Particularly in ancient Greek tradition, a human transformed into a wolf was said to be a form of divine punishment that was completely irreversible.
The first mythological werewolf, Lykaon, was a Greek king who tried to serve Zeus human flesh at a banquet. Horrified by this, Zeus permanently transformed Lykaon into a wolf, with no way to reverse this curse.
Also in Greek mythology, it was said that a person who drank rainwater from a wolf footprint would be permanently transformed into a wolf.
While these werewolf solutions are mythologically correct, they are not convenient for an engaging, Hollywood story.
The weakness of werewolves to silver, introduced in the 1941 film Wolf Man, immediately caught on and became popular because it was a very simple and easy-to-understand plot device:
- Silver can be used to make any object: swords, bullets, arrows, etc.
- Silver is a precious and exotic metal, but it’s common enough that it’s still relatable. This is because most people own at least a few silver items in their household.
- Silver already had some symbolic meanings that were intuitive and easy to understand.
Ultimately, destroying a werewolf with a silver item is very physical, direct, and understandable.
Using a more traditional method, such as destroying a werewolf’s magical clothing, would lead to a more confusing, meandering plot that wouldn’t be as iconic and easy to understand as the proverbial silver bullet.
- The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring-Gould
- The Werewolf in Lore and Legend by Montague Summers
- The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters by Rosemary Guiley
- The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition by Caroline Taylor Stewart
- Giants, monsters, and dragons by Carol Rose
- Man, Myth & Magic by Richard Cavendish, Cottie Arthur Burland, Brian Innes
- The Beast Within by Adam Douglas
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